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Category: Profiles Date: 11 Sep 95

Fr Gerry Pantin was awarded the Trinity Cross for community service last month. He has also been the recipient of Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize for his work.


Fr Pantin has been at the helm of the Servol organisation of life centres, for over two decades. In the course of his career, he has given hope to thousands of disadvantaged young men and women. People who might have otherwise succumbed to the underworld of drugs, violent crime and poverty today lead productive and fulfilled lives.


Earlier this year, Ira Mathur (IM) interviewed him, and reports that Fr Pantin (GP) believes that poverty and the violence it creates affect us all. We all need to pitch in if we are interested in making this country a fit place to live and to bring up children.



IM: Father Pantin, how much poverty exists in Trinidad and Tobago?


GP: A recent map published by the CSO shows that 40 percent of Trinidad lives under the poverty line. And that is defined as an annual income of $650.



IM: How do people living below the poverty line survive on an annual income which another section of society could easily spend in one trip to the grocery?


GP: I once asked a visiting American from a multinational agency what would happen if Social Security is scrapped in the USA. He said he couldn’t imagine, except that the consequences would be horrific. I told him that in Trinidad we don’t have social security but we do have an informal social security network. People with jobs give money to poor neighbours to help them buy food or books for their children.



IM: What is the effect of poverty on people?


GP: Stress. Which leads to violence. Also 90 percent of these homes have no father figure; the mother has to beg, borrow and steal for food. The children become the wrong kind of entrepreneurs. A young boy told me that he was trying hard not to get into the cocaine trade. But he knew that it could put a blue note on the table for mom. Robbing, stealing, peddling drugs, violent crime might be their only tool of survival. Those who take the high moral stance should try living in these areas and ask themselves, as people ask me: ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’ And often I can say nothing. I know the critical conditions in which people are living. A husband who can’t put food on the table beats his wife. The wife batters children. The children grow up around violence and so the cycle continues.



IM: Who is worst off in this situation?


GP: The young male is the worst off. As you know self-esteem is very important to a young man. If he is seen as a nobody in the neighbourhood and his family, if he has no hope for a better life, he suffers intensely. He feels impotent. He gets to a point when he is empowered only by the violence he is able to perpetrate.



IM: How do young women and girls cope in disadvantaged areas?


GP: When an average young girl reaches the age of 15 she realises she needs a protector. What is the easiest way to bind a young male to her?  Have a child for him. She hopes to settle down with him but he leaves her and so she has to find another mate. In this way by the age of 26, she could have six children by three or four different men. She is a single mother living in poverty. Increasingly young girls are also victims of incest. Our counsellors are bringing us case after case. The mother is forced to close her eyes because she depends on the man for money. The girls have nowhere else to go, and neither does she.



IM: What can we do to help?


GP: First of all we need to alleviate the level of stress in these communities. We have 50 field officers who visit these people. You’d be surprised how a sympathetic ear, and some good advice relives stress. We need an army of field officers to help do that. We have heard about the millions of dollars of investment. We know it is capital intensive. But some of the revenue it generates should be used to create employment in these areas which need it the most.


I am involved in a lending organisation called Fund Aid where we give small loans, a few hundred dollars, to people who want to set up small businesses, like a nuts vendor, a hot dog van, anything like that. We have lent over three million dollars in 14 months, and lost only $267 dollars. It is a fallacy to say that poor people do not repay loans. The banks are unprepared to service these loans because its not worth their while. More small organisation like Fund Aid are necessary.


We have also done a survey of youngsters out of school and have found that every year of post secondary education given to a female leads her to postpone pregnancy. If you can get a young female living in a disadvantaged area to postpone pregnancy, it would be the biggest gift they could give to the nation and themselves. She can then become self sufficient by becoming self employed. If she has no alternative she will follow the cultural pattern. Our girls (Servol) are way below average of child bearing compared to the national average. This is a way out of the poverty trap for them.


We need Human Development programmes in every school. Teach the children about their sexuality. Empower them. There is still so much ignorance around that subject. For instance so many young people think Guinness is a panacea for all sexual problems: abortion, preventing pregnancy, increasing potency. We need to teach them for instance that their digestive tract is not related to the reproductive system. Everybody has to pitch in to help. We need to help them cope with adolescence.



IM: What is your worst case scenario?


GP: The picture I see is that crime will escalate. The funny thing about mob violence is that it can ignite in a matter of seconds. It could be a small incident. Someone could get accidentally shot and the place will erupt. It has to do with the stress building up, the rage that “nobody is doing anything to help our situation. We hear great plans for Trinidad but it is not trickling down to us.”



IM: You spoke of 90 percent of households being run by single mothers. Where are the men?


GP: All over the place, producing children, “taking out a wo’k.” A lot of entrepreneurship is taking place but it is negative. It is entrepreneurship where guns are being used, but we have to do something to stem that or sooner or later, something’s going to explode.


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